ATHENS, Ga. — For the second time in 10 days, Georgia outlasted a conference opponent in overtime.
The Bulldogs (9-7) defeated Arkansas 66-61 as a home underdog, improving to 3-1 in conference play behind an eye-catching defensive effort in Stegeman Coliseum. Trailing by as many as seven points early in the second half, they fought their way back to a tie—part of a 7-0 run—while limiting the Razorbacks to just four field goals in the final 16 minutes of regulation. Once the extra period hit, guards Charles Mann and Kenny Gaines combined for 10 points to help their team finally pull away from Arkansas.
The Razorbacks came into the game averaging an SEC-best 84.7 points per contest. But on Saturday, they were held to season-lows in field-goal percentage (31.8), field goals (21) and assists (11) while leading scorer Michael Qualls managed just three points all game.
“We paid attention to the scouting report. Made sure people didn’t curl. I know Arkansas liked to curl out of screens. [We] tried to make sure we shot the gap and just defended well overall,” said Gaines, who led the team with 15 points.
Perhaps the most telling stat, however, would be rebounding margin. The Bulldogs won that battle 56-34, fueled in large part by Marcus Thornton (13 rebounds) and Donte Williams (seven rebounds), and they remain undefeated when outrebounding an opponent.
“Those two kids really played their hearts out," head coach Mark Fox said. "I was critical of our front line in Gainesville because I thought our front line got out-played. They really made great efforts today. Marcus Thornton made a lot of super second and third efforts."
Both Thornton and Williams combined for one of the more critical (and exciting) plays of the game, registering back-to-back blocks in overtime before Mann drew an Arkansas foul and extended Georgia's lead to a game-high seven points.
"That play was the epitome of the game,” Fox said. “Two guys making efforts to block shots.”
For Thornton, it was also his first career double-double as he finished with 11 points. The junior forward is in the midst of his best season after missing several games due to multiple surgeries and health issues.
His production in the paint has been an integral part of UGA's success in SEC play, and he sees no reason why that won't continue heading down the stretch of the season.
“I’m just getting better, knocking the rust off every game,” Thornton said.
Mann, though he turned up the intensity in overtime, struggled offensively for much of the game. He shot 2-for-10 from the field, went 0-for-3 from 3-point range and wound up riding the bench for several minutes in favor of freshman J.J. Frazier.
Frazier also struggled shooting the ball, going 0-for-6 on field goals, but helped sparked the offense with his vision and distribution.
“I thought J.J. Frazier gave us a big lift today,” said Fox. “I’ve been really hard on J.J. He’s improved, he’s toughened up. Today, he didn’t make a shot. He’s such a great 3-point shooter I was surprised he didn’t put one of those in. But he’s really made some progress and was a big part of the game.”
Coming off an ugly 72-50 road loss to Florida last Tuesday, a team that likes to press opponents, many wondered whether UGA was doomed to the same fate against the Razorbacks.
But this was not the case. In fact, players say Billy Donovan's defense helped prepare Georgia for what it would face in Arkansas.
“We wanted to make sure we dealt with their press a little bit better than we did at Florida,” said Gaines. “I felt like we did a pretty good job.”
After finishing non-conference play at an underwhelming 6-6, the Bulldogs find themselves in a place very few expected to see: alive and well in the SEC standings. And with South Carolina riding into Athens with three (potentially four) conference losses on its resume, the Bulldogs stand a good chance of keeping the momentum alive.
“This is where we want to be at. We just want to keep on staying in the upper half of the SEC,” Mann said.